Maybe that’s how it feels.
When your child is gone.
It’s the song on the radio that your kid used to dance to.
It’s the thing they would have ordered at McDonald's.
It’s driving over a bump and instinctively looking in the rear view mirror to only see an empty backseat.
Lately, I have been struggling to find the words to say in a world full of grief. Miscarriages, still births, strange diseases and school shootings.
A couple of weeks ago, my grandmother offered me this advice: “With each child, there’s a little bit of a fear, but you turn that loose, you give it to the Lord, knowing that he is in control.”
This advice stemmed from our conversation about the loss of her first child – a little baby girl born two months too early on January 8, 1956.
The doctors didn't know little Donna’s abdominal cavity had never grown together – there were no ultrasounds back then. Realizing the seriousness of the situation after she was born, the doctors knocked out my grandma and then “they immediately gathered up this little baby and all her parts and had a decision to make.”
Amazingly, they put Donna back together, stitched her up and put her in an incubator. They said if she made it for 72 hours, she would probably survive.
“Her little heart was very strong and she kept beating,” my grandma said.
Though some said the name “Donna Lynne Ullman” was too beautiful to be given to a child who wouldn’t use it, my grandparents stuck with their choice of giving her their names – Don and Lynne – “because she was part of both of us.”
This beautiful child who looked like my grandpa, with a cleft chin and black hair, was a fighter.
Three days later, Donna was sleeping comfortably and so my grandpa went out with his buddies to celebrate at the local tavern. The dreaded 72 hours had passed.
Forbidden to hold her baby for risk of infection, my then 20-year-old grandmother remained watchful.
“I watched her when she cried and I watched her while she was sleeping, but I never got to touch my child.”
Instead, she prayed.
“I prayed for God’s strength for Don and myself, and for God to heal her and if not, take her,” she said. “And he chose to take her.”
At 10:55 on January 11, an infection in her intestines ended Donna’s fight.
“I wish I would have picked her up when she was in that incubator when she died because I was there,” she recalled. “She was fighting and kicking and flailing those arms and the nurses were working like mad.”
My grandma knelt on a chair in the corner, praying for her child, ignoring the nurses who were uneasy with her presence.
“And then she stopped fighting. The nurses didn’t know how to tell me, but I knew.”
The nurses wanted her to leave.
“I walked up to the incubator before I left and she was at peace,” she said. “I was at peace too because I knew she wasn’t hurting anymore.”
“And then there was a huge, huge emptiness.”
My grandma was accused of not loving Donna because she didn’t cry the day they buried that little white casket with pink satin lining at Belcrest Memorial Park. But as she recanted her story and stared out the window at the water moving by, I could see the river in her eyes.
“I didn’t plan on being a mom,” she admitted, telling me how Donna would have been considered a honeymoon baby, even without a honeymoon. “But how can you carry a child and not love it?”
I asked her about the emptiness she felt, and how she filled it.
“You don’t fill it, because that’s a spot only that child can fill,” she said, pausing.
“It’s like a God-shaped hole; a hole only God can fill.”
I was astounded to hear my grandmother’s distinction between pain and emptiness.
“It doesn’t hurt,” she said. “The pain is gone because you know that God is in control and you know that she is where she is supposed to be.”
“Donna was made the way she was because that’s the way the Lord made her,” she continued. “She was such a blessing in her little short life.”
My grandmother went on to tell me how this little baby who was born all torn apart made our family whole.
“I knew that the Lord’s hand was in it.”
You see, there was much strife in the Ullman household in the year preceding Donna’s arrival. In fact, my grandpa was so mad at his parents’ rejection of his marriage to my grandma that he wasn’t even speaking to them.
My grandfather’s parents were socialites in Salem, while my grandmother’s mom and step-father operated a restaurant and lived in the sticks.
“They were somebody and I was a nobody,” my grandma recalled.
They refused to acknowledge when the two got engaged and repeatedly declined multiple wedding invitations. To avoid further embarrassment, my grandma returned her wedding dress, cancelled all plans and the couple eloped. My grandpa was furious with his parents, ignoring their feeble attempts to salvage the relationship thereafter; until January 8, 1956.
When Donna was born with so many problems, my grandpa finally called his mother and his parents came down to the hospital.
“They hurt him very much,” she said. “But with Donna’s death, it hurt him and he was able to reach out to his parents. She brought Don and his parents back together. She made our family whole.”
Not only did Donna’s death open up communication between my grandpa and his parents, but it also fostered a relationship between my grandma and her in-laws.
“They learned to love me, I really do believe, and I learned to love them and accept them,” my grandma said. “And my children and their children had a relationship with them. I was bound and determined that my children would know their grandparents without strife.”
“That’s exactly the way I prayed our family would be.”
On a day marred by lives cut off too soon, I am pausing tonight to remember to thank God for every day, every hour I am blessed to spend with my family. From the wrinkly ones to the brand new ones, I am learning more and more how lucky I am to have family. God gives and God takes, and even though I am left contemplating ways to keep my child safer in this world filled with evil, I am continuously reminded that there is someone greater in control and that I may never see the reasons why because there is a greater work at hand.
My God is able.